6 writing resolutions to improve your copy in 2019
Want to achieve your New Year’s resolutions this year? Just do as I do: Resolve to watch more reality TV.
But if you actually want to achieve something worthwhile in 2019, here are six writing resolutions to make today:
1. Remember the reader.
“You’ve got to be a good date for the reader.”
— Kurt Vonnegut, American novelist, author of Slaughterhouse-Five and other black comedies
To make your next blog post, press release or pitch more relevant to your readers, try leading with this formula:
Here’s how it looks in action:
That’s far more likely to produce good writing that engages the reader than the tired “ABC Company yesterday announced that …” lead.
2. Make your message look easier to read.
“I don’t divide the world into ‘loyal readers’ and ‘scanners.’ I suspect all readers are scanners.”
— Don Fry, faculty member at The Poynter Institute
There’s nothing like reading a Facebook feed of 80-character status updates to make a 400-word blog post seem impenetrable.
To make copy look more inviting, pass The Palm Test. That is, use subheads, bold-faced lead-ins, bulleted lists and other display copy to break copy up into chunks no larger than the palm of your hand.
And remember: Your palm is the fleshy part of your hand. Add your fingers, and that’s your whole hand.
Whether you’re planning to write a book or a tweet, you’ll reach a lot of people if you pass The Palm Test.
3. Activate the passive voice.
“Use the active voice. The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive.”
— Strunk & White, The Elements of Style
Whether you are a young writer or a seasoned one, the passive voice can cause some confusion. So how do you identify the passive voice?
If you can add “by my grandma” to the end of a sentence, it’s probably the passive voice, says Tim Burnett, who handles Express communications at FedEx. Example: “A nap was taken … by my grandma.”
Once you’ve identified the passive voice, make sure the subject is doing the verb:
- Find the verb.
- Ask who’s doing the verb.
- Move that subject in front of the verb.
Result: “My grandma took a nap.”
That’s important. Passive voice reduces comprehension, is longer than the active construction, feels bureaucratic, sucks the energy from sentences and isn’t conversational.
4. Squeeze in a story.
“Stories are the most powerful form of human communication.”
— Peg C. Neuhauser, author, Corporate Legends and Lore
Stories are among the best tools in a writer’s toolbelt. But too many communicators avoid anecdotes because they feel they don’t have enough space.
Master writers, however, can tell a compelling story in a few words.
The Beatles’ song “Eleanor Rigby,” for instance has only 179 words, points out Pulitzer Prize-winning feature writer Tom French. Yet the song contains three stories — and a chorus.
In The Emperor of All Maladies, Siddhartha Mukherjee shares this tiny tale:
This mini story by the Associated Press about evacuating Hurricane Katrina refugees from the Superdome took on a life of its own:
How can you squeeze a compelling story into your next piece?
5. Come up with better ideas.
“There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer station. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there, you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you.”
— Stephen King, novelist, in On Writing
Stop waiting for the muse. Instead, use the 5-step creative process to come up with better idea, overcome writers’ block and end-run procrastination:
- Forage, or gather information. Before you start writing, feed your brain with background research, interviews and other raw material.
- Analyze that information. Sift through, focus and organize that information. Look for themes, holes, relationships and structure.
- Incubate. Let the information simmer. This is where you take your eye off the ball and let the back of your mind work on your project for a while.
- Break through. This is the magical moment where your brain presents a brilliant idea fully formed.
- Knuckle down. Take Ernest Hemingway’s advice and “apply the seat of your pants to the seat of the chair.” In other words, turn your great idea into a great story.
It’s the process, people: Use these steps in this order, and you’ll find that you’re able to come up with more — and more useful — ideas.
6. Write tight sound bites.
“What are the proper proportions of a maxim? A minimum of sound to a maximum of sense.”
— Mark Twain, American author and wit
Mark Twain was right: Short quotes just sound better.
So how long should your corporate quotes be?
Take a tip from The New York Times and keep quotes to 20 words or less. With an emphasis on or less.
Twenty words was the average length of a quote in one issue of the Times, which Wylie Communications analyzed a couple of years ago. (We skipped the sports pages.)
We found that, excluding attribution, the Times’:
- Average length of a quote was 19 to 20 words.
- Median length was 18 words.
- Most common length was 7 words.
Here’s what that looks like:
That’s a minimum of sound to a maximum of sense.
Bonus tip: Quantify your value.
Numbers sell stories. For instance, articles with numerals in their titles tend to be shared more on Facebook than stories without digits, according to a study by viral marketing scientist Dan Zarrella.
So quantify the value that your piece delivers: Offer 10 tips, 7 steps — or 6 New Year’s writing resolutions.